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Wednesday, 19 November 1986
Page: 2484

Senator PUPLICK —My question, which is directed to the Minister representing the Attorney-General, relates to the Government's intervention in support of attempts by the United Kingdom Government to deny Australian citizens information about the origins of their own security services and the role played in their establishment by Sir Roger Hollis. I ask: Did Mr Codd, the Chairman of the Secretary's Committee on Intelligence and Security, make two submissions to Mr Justice Powell, first, that publication of Peter Wright's book would encourage members of similar Australian agencies to make such disclosures, and, secondly, that such disclosures could damage Australia's security because of a loss of confidence in the ability of these agencies to keep information secret? Is it not a fact that Mr Wright was not bound by the Australian Official Secrets Act, and therefore the first leg of the argument is spurious? Does it mean that the Australian Government has no confidence in the British security services because of their leaks and because of the activities of Messrs Burgess, MacLean, Philby, Blunt, Fuchs, Blake, Vassall, Prine and others? Finally, has the Minister noted the comments by His Honour Mr Justice Powell, criticising the United Kingdom Attorney-General for the feebleness of the case that has been put to him?

Senator GARETH EVANS —I do not propose to comment on the course of the litigation at the moment. Certainly, I would not be so vulgar as to pass on any remarks about the conduct of the case by the judge, as Senator Puplick has just done. It is inappropriate, I think, given the way in which we pay respect to judicial proceedings in this country, for diatribes of that kind to be uttered in this chamber, particularly at such a premature stage of what clearly will be prolonged proceedings.

All I will say about this matter is that the question in issue concerns the proper scope and application of the Australian law of breach of confidence. Although it concerns a British plaintiff pursuing, in effect, a British defendant in relation to matters involving disclosure of what are possibly British secrets, the reality is that it is the scope and application of the Australian law that is the subject of decision and, as such, the Australian Government and its security services have a natural interest in the way in which that law is applied and the way in which it may be applied in comparable cases in the future. To the extent that Mr Codd's affidavit on behalf of the Government does traverse some of the areas that Senator Puplick has described, there is an entirely reasonable and understandable Australian public interest involved in ensuring that the scope of the law of breach of confidentiality is applied in such a way that former or current members of security agencies will not be encouraged to feel free to disclose the secrets they acquire in the course of such employment.

I find it quite extraordinary that Senator Puplick, as a representative of a party which shrouds itself in the flag and beats its collective chest on security matters, should be so profoundly insensitive and indifferent to what are manifestly national security concerns. It seems to me to be yet another example of flexible principle and of cynical opportunism, of the kind we have seen so often from the Party opposite, which loves to proclaim itself as a supporter of principle in the abstract, but which, when it is confronted with any practical application of it and any particular hard choice that governments must face in practice, runs for cover and advances cheap popular slogans of the kind that Senator Puplick has just put before us.

Senator PUPLICK —Mr President, I ask a supplementary question. Can the Minister identify the Australian security interests that are being protected by the Australian Government's intervention in this case, as distinct from British security interests?

Senator GARETH EVANS —Senator Puplick clearly has not listened to what I have just said. Australia has a public interest, a security interest, in ensuring that the law of breach of confidence is not applied in Australia in such a way as to give aid, comfort or nourishment to servants or former servants of security agencies who might be tempted to launch into print and disclose things they may have learnt or experienced or which they have said they have learnt or experienced in the course of their employment. If Senator Puplick cannot understand that as being a public interest and a security interest that is deserving of at least the limited kind of intervention in support of it that the Australian Government has offered, he should not be a senator in this place.